Desert Isle Keeper
The Sandalwood Princess
A Retro Review
originally published on July 5, 2012
The Amazon synopsis for this 1990 book quotes the Library Journal review, which made me laugh: “This book is only for hardcore romance readers.” Presumably this means that the only thing this book has to offer is a tear-inducing, heart-tugging, sprawling yarn with a shipboard romance, deceit and treachery, patchouli, and Yorkshire snow – but nothing else, mind you. So beware. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Herein lies a Romance.
I’ll agree with one thing they say: The premise can be hard to buy. It’s full of 30-year vengeance and reunited lovers, long months apart, and adults sometimes acting like two-year-olds. It’s also full of good old-fashioned melodrama. But let me remind you: We’re talking about Loretta Chase here. And melodrama in Ms. Chase’s oh-so-capable hands is a ripping good story.
It begins and ends with a statue. Thirty years ago, Rani Simhi, an Indian princess, fell passionately in love with Richard Whitestone, Lord Hedgrave, and he with her. But the Rani learned that Hedgrave was paid to seduce her; eventually, he left and took everything, leaving her only the statue of a sandalwood princess. Over time Hedgrave became obsessed with the statue; attempts to steal it failed repeatedly. Finally, Hedgrave hires the Falcon, a man who Gets Things Done (and aka the Honourable Philip Astonley), and offers him fifty thousand pounds to retrieve the sandalwood princess. Slight hitch: The princess has gifted the statue to Amanda Cavencourt, an Englishwoman who has lived in India for the past seven years and is about to return to England.
Here is where you sort of have to block out the premise, and ignore the plotting of getting and stealing the statue (multiple times). It’s all an excuse anyway for Philip and Amanda to talk to each other. You see, for most of the book Philip is masquerading first as a valet, then as Amanda’s butler. The social difference puts a very necessary constraint on their interactions, and it’s wonderful – bloody wonderful, I tell you – to have two people trapped for six months on a ship, then four months in Yorkshire, with nothing to do but talk to each other. And nothing else.
What do they talk about? Well, at first Philip has to play the overeducated valet, and Amanda is the sister to a nobleman, so naturally they’re snooty and cold. But her sympathies arise when Philip’s “master” (actually his valet) becomes ill, and while Amanda’s maid nurses Philip’s “master” they start to meet more often. Then they start to meet in the evenings, for an hour or two, in a completely innocent fashion; they often talk of India, and Amanda tells stories. In Yorkshire, they take walks. He takes notes for her book, and looks after her. All the while, they know it has to end – ultimately Philip will have to betray Amanda and steal the statue, and Amanda knows that nothing can come of a noblewoman and her butler.
Yeah, melodramatic stuff. But it works. Loretta Chase doesn’t overdo the emotions, stays away from mental lusting, and there’s very little internal agonizing. One or two phrases, and you know their hearts are breaking. She lets their interactions (and actions) speak for themselves, and by golly it works.
There are also humorous moments provided by some seasick passengers, Amanda’s maid Bella, Philip’s actual valet, and Padji, the princess’ servant come to serve Amanda. As a great sly giant of a man, Padji almost steals the show with his maneuvering and ready fists.
But ultimately it’s Philip and Amanda who remain in my thoughts. Somehow I passed by this old Regency from Ms. Chase, and despite the melodramatic moments the book stands up to the passage of time.